Monday, December 31, 2012

Books that bridge the miles

Tim Boas crossing a bridge during his solo hike on the Pacific Crest Trail  in 2003

In last week's column, I shared four books that took me on virtual trips across the ocean. Today's column explores four domestic locales, places I visited in 2012 courtesy of the printed word.

When she was 22, former waitress and novice backpacker Cheryl Strayed (an invented surname chosen because it epitomized her disconnected life) began a solo trek along the rugged Pacific Crest Trail. Distraught by the recent death of her mother, racked by failed relationships and poor personal choices, Strayed hoped the 1,100-mile journey would help her regain perspective, purpose and a new direction in life.
To say she accomplished those goals is an understatement.
Partly adventure story, partly memoir, Strayed's riveting tale, "Wild," takes the reader up and down snowy mountains, across arid deserts and through remote countryside where few people live and fewer venture.

I felt a special connection to this story because my own son took a similar trip 10 years ago. When he was 18, Tim hiked the Appalachian Trail from Georgia to Maine. The following year he headed west to tackle the Pacific Crest Trail, choosing a route nearly identical to the one Strayed describes in her book. Like the author, Tim also chose to go alone.

A signpost in one of the many desolate sections of the PCT photographed by Tim in 2003

I found Strayed's story to be both enlightening and frightening. I knew few details about my son's trips when he was hiking, and after reading her story I have to admit I'm glad I was so poorly informed. Some things are best learned after the fact, including some of the crazy and (from a mother's perspective) scary solo experiences such as those described in the book. Wild indeed. Check it out at

While her mother's death from cancer inspired Strayed's journey of discovery, surviving a life-threatening illness motivated Kate, the main character in Erica Bauermeister's 2012 novel "Joy for Beginners," to take on a life-altering adventure of her own.

Thus begin multiple voyages of personal transformations. As a reader, I traveled along with the seven main characters, with special attention focused on Kate's riveting ride down the river. Like Kate, I too have always found such an adventure intriguing yet peppered by a generous helping of fear. As I watched this fictional character overcome both mental and physical obstacles, I felt my own objections loosen. My strengths and joy expanded. Maybe someday I'll have the courage to take a similar trip in real time instead of vicariously experiencing it through the pages of a book. For more, go to

A vicarious experience was the only option in Jean Kwok's 2010 novel "Girl in Translation." I loved this book because it offered insight into a world I would otherwise have known nothing about — that of Chinese emigrants to Brooklyn in the mid-20th century, when working in sweatshops was commonplace and acclimating to a new culture was fraught with obstacles.
As a person who enjoys historical fiction, I found Kwok's artfully drawn characters and situations offered lessons in both cultural nuances and historical facts. I was drawn into the characters' personal struggles and aspirations. As with all good reads, I couldn't wait to find out what happens next while simultaneously not wanting the book's ending to come. When it finally did, I was satisfied with the result. I like novels that don't disappoint, that serve up a hearty helping of edification along with entertainment wrapped up neatly with a positive conclusion. Interested? Go to

In the search for contemporary novels of a light, upbeat nature, author Claire Cooke never disappoints. I discovered Cooke in May and proceeded to devour five of her 10 books. My favorite so far, and the one that took me on my most memorable travel adventure, was "The Wildwater Walking Club," which combined several of my interests — gardening, walking, travel and friendship.
The story, which takes place in 32 days, follows the lives of three women living in the same Massachusetts seaside neighborhood. Through their daily walks together, Tess, Noreen and Rosie rack up much more than miles. As their pedometers click off more and more steps, their friendships grow. Deeper understandings of individual problems develop, solutions to problems are found, and new directions chosen.
For me, one of the story's highlights was the trip the women took to the West Coast to attend a lavender festival. At that point, my virtual involvement with the story became so intense that I had no choice but to go out and buy a lavender plant to add to my garden. Look into it at

I can't think of any book I've read cover to cover that hasn't taken me on some sort of journey. Although I may not physically traverse narrow mountain paths, navigate raging rapids, experience the stifling environment of a sweatshop or inhale the fragrant air at a lavender festival, I can always depend on books to take me on memorable adventures. Books are my ticket to different times and places. They introduce me to unfamiliar cultures and perspectives and make me aware of myriad new ideas.
Travel is indeed grand.

Monday, December 24, 2012

Travel the world by reading books

Books have taken me on many a journey...

Simply Living
December 24, 2012

I didn’t do much traveling in 2012.  Aside from a few trips to Northampton, Mass. to visit Jenny, Brett and our grandchildren, I never left the state, let alone the country.  However, my lack of physical travel doesn’t mean I didn’t take some incredible journeys.

Thanks to the world of literature, books took me across the ocean, throughout the United States and even back in time to bygone eras.  In this week’s column, I’ll share four of my favorite international adventures, exploring books that took me on virtual trips to Afghanistan, Japan, France and Italy.

One of my first on-the-page journeys of 2012 was to far away Afghanistan.  While most news stories about war torn countries are unbearably depressing, we occasionally hear about one with a positive theme.  Such is the case in The Dressmaker of Khair Khana by Gayle Tzemach Lemmon.  Lemmon, a former ABC news reporter provides an intimate in-depth study into the world of Kamila Sidiqi, a young woman whose entrepreneurial efforts helped thousands of Afghani woman overcome seemingly insurmountable obstacles.  With little more than a bit of thread and fabric and an abundance of hope and sisterhood support, Sidiqi’s extraordinary efforts changed the lives of her community forever.  The Dressmaker of Khair Khana is a humanitarian story that reads like a novel, uplifting as well as culturally enriching.


While also based in contemporary times, Wendy Nelson Tokunaga’s 2009 novel, Love inTranslation took me to an entirely different country and culture – modern day Japan.  This cross-cultural look at Tokyo society is viewed through the eyes of an aspiring young American singer who ventures overseas in hope of learning the whereabouts of her absent father.  While the story is rich with humor and tenderness, it was the artfully crafted characters and intriguing glimpses into Asian culture that drew me in and kept me turning pages long after I should have shut off the light and pulled up the covers.  When I finally closed the book late one night after a marathon read, I felt like I had returned home from a long and rewarding trip to Toyko, eager for a return visit.


I’ve never been to France but after reading Pamela Druckerman’s 2012 memoir, Bringing UpBébé : One American Mother Discovers the Wisdom of French Parenting I felt like getting on a plane to cross the ocean.  Not that Druckerman’s book is a travel journal.  It isn’t.  It is an exploration of French parenting techniques written by an American journalist living and raising her own young children with her British husband in modern-day Paris.  However, in the process of exploring the ways French parenting differs from American child-rearing, Druckerman takes the reader along on her daily travels in and about that most romantic of cities.  While telling her tale, the author skillfully exposes a multitude of intriguing cultural differences between the two countries. 

Since my own daughters were struggling with similar childrearing issues as the author, I hoped to find a few helpful tips within the pages.  I couldn’t have been more pleased.  Not only was the information helpful, I found the entire book to be a fascinating and insightful read.  

Although categorized as non-fiction, Bringing Up Bébé reads like a novel with a homespun, somewhat self-deprecating and totally entertaining style.  After finishing the book, I passed it on to my husband and then ordered copies for each of my daughters.  It was thoroughly enjoyed by all.

Adriana Trigiani’s 2012 novel, The Shoemaker’s Daughter, is one of those stories that span time as well as continents.  As the story followed the lives of Ciro and Enza through their travels from the Italian Alps to small town Minnesota to bustling Manhattan and back to Italy, I once again found myself caught up in a cultural adventure.  New insights, points of view and perspectives were artful presented in a spellbinding story of love, loss, resilience and hope.  

How fortunate it is to have access to broadening adventures.  Thanks to libraries, bookstores, online resources and word-of-mouth recommendations, a stay-at-home reader like me can travel the world through the magic of words.  

In next week’s column, I’ll share a few of my more domestic adventures; books that have helped me explore the cities, small towns and wilderness areas of our own treasured country. 

Isn’t travel grand!

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Fallen leaves give rise to playfulness

Atom Fischler paying in the leaves.

Simply Living
December 17, 2012

The lawn between the house and the lake is brown.   Even though it hasn’t rained much, the brown color isn’t due to lack of precipitation.  
Brown leaves blanket the grass, specifically sycamore leaves. 

In 2006, we planted one sycamore tree in our front lawn about halfway between the lake and the house.  We must have picked a good spot because in the past six years that tiny sprig has grown into a towering behemoth.  My guess is that it is now about 45-feet tall and almost as broad. 

Sycamores have an attractive, symmetrical shape usually with a single trunk that sports evenly spaced branches extending parallel to the ground.  A full-grown sycamore looks like one of those crayoned drawings of trees children do in kindergarten – a triangular form, wide at the bottom, narrow at the top.   

In Florida, sycamores are one of the earliest trees to change color in autumn.  Beginning in late August the leaves go from green to amber to brown.  However, even after they’ve turned brown, they often stay attached to the limbs, falling down gradually over the next few months.  By the middle of December, only about half of our sycamore tree leaves have landed on the ground.  The ones that have fallen are as broad as a man’s hand with a tough, leathery texture. 

Because they are so large and heavy, sycamore leaves tend to stay in place instead of blowing around.  That’s also true for those that land in gutters instead of on the ground.  As our gutters so aptly prove, fallen sycamore leaves do a great job of creating clogs and preventing rainwater from flowing through downspouts.  If I knew six years ago what I know now about a sycamore tree’s characteristics, I wouldn’t have planted one where we did.

However, now that it’s here, it’s here to stay.  Ralph likes the shade it provides and as much as I dislike the way its leaves create chores, I have to agree.  Its broad canopy does an excellent job of filtering sunlight.  Its limbs provide perches for a wide range of birds as well as a source of food for hungry sapsuckers.  And when the leaves do fall to the ground, they are pretty in an autumnal, reminds-me-of-my-northern-roots kind of way. 

At some point, we’ll probably take the rake out of the garage and put some energy into creating leafy mounds.  Last year, our then 2-year-old grandson had great fun jumping into rounded piles of sycamore leaves.  Now that he’s three with a 1-year-old little sister, I expect it to be twice as much fun. 

Holiday season is just around the corner and the gifts many children receive will be in the form of electronic gadgets and plastic toys in bright primary colors.  When I think of such presents as I’m looking out the window at the muted tones of the brown, leaf-littered ground, I can’t help but contrast the fun that store-bought toys provide with the pleasures derived from one of nature’s own playthings – crisp, crunchy, brown leaves begging to be jumped in, tossed through the air and turned into forts.  Although I received many toys when I was a child, no board game, doll, building block or puzzle yielded the sensory-rich memories I still have of playing in the leaves.

Sycamore leaves might blanket the lawn, clog up gutters, drift into flowerpots and wedge themselves tightly into the corners of buildings but they also beseech me to cast off the armor of adulthood. 

“Be playful,” they beckon. 

“Go outside,” they implore. 

“Kick us in the air!  Crunch us beneath your feet!” 

They are a visual reminder of nature’s late-season message:  You’re never too old to be young and have fun. 

Monday, December 10, 2012

A pretty little weed

Oxalis debilis is an attractive weed with pretty pink flowers, shamrock-shaped leaves and a compact mounded form

Simply Living
December 10, 2012

There are certain non-native plants (aka escaped exotics/weeds) that I’m rather fond of despite their purported invasiveness.  Among them, pink sorrel (Oxalis debilis) stands out, literally as well as figuratively. 

Without any assist from us, this low-growing, no-fuss perennial appears in our flowerbeds.  All year round – except during winter freezes - clusters of pretty, pink flowers top the green, shamrock-shaped leaves.

Little pink flowers bloom practically year-round

Although the plant spreads through underground rhizomes, I haven’t found pink sorrel to be particularly invasive.  That’s probably because it seems to have a decided preference for the enriched soil of garden beds and container plants.  I’ve walked all over our property but have never seen pink sorrel growing anywhere except areas where the soil has previously been augmented.  In such settings however, especially if they are sunny, I usually find multiple mounds of unplanted beauty.

Oxalis debilis is one of 900 members of Oxilidaceae, the wood sorrel family.  Although native to South America, wood sorrel plants exist in all but the coldest locations around the world.  There are some 30 varieties in the United States with six in Florida. 

All wood sorrels are edible, but they do contain oxalic acid, a chemical compound present in spinach, kale, beets, parsley and a number of other foods.  If eaten to excess, oxalic acid is toxic and can lead to kidney problems but it would be highly unlikely for that to happen with pink sorrel.  The leaves of this perennial plant are small and have a sour lemony flavor.  A few added to a salad might result in an interesting flavor but eating an entire bowlful would provide more tartness than most people would find palatable.

While I appreciate pink sorrel’s edible quality, that’s not the reason I’m so fond of the plant.  I like this self-propagating wildflower because it’s so pretty.  The green foliage forms rounded mounds that can reach up to eight inches tall with a foot-wide diameter and the small five-petal flowers that grow in clusters atop thin stems look like small pink stars.  In the evening and during periods of drought, the blooms close up.  The leaves do too.  When closed, the shamrock-shaped leaves look like tiny versions of those fortuneteller games I used to make out of folded paper when I was a kid.

Although pink sorrel grows wild in temperate garden beds, I like the plant best as a container plant in individual pots or mixed groupings.  I keep a couple containers of sorrel on the porch-side patio but people who live in colder climates often grow it indoors solely as a houseplant.  That’s what my daughter does.  Whenever I visit Jenny in her Massachusetts home, I admire the lush mound of Oxalis triangularis that sits on a table by a window in her living room.  Triangularis is a purple-leafed relative to Oxalis debilis that also produces pink blooms.

Oxalis triangularis has large purple leaves and pink-white flowers.  In this picture, it is growing in a container alongside a variegated spider plant

The Florida Exotic Pest Plant Council ( does not include pink sorrel as either a Category I or a Category II invasive plant but because it is a non-native plant with the ability to aggressively self-propagate, native plant advocates don’t encourage its use in the landscape.  The Florida Native Plant Society ( lists only one variety of wood sorrel, Oxalis comiculate (better known as common yellow wood sorrel) as a Florida native.  However, from my experience, I’ve found the native oxalis tends to pop up in lawns, sidewalk cracks and between steppingstones.  Common yellow wood sorrel is also less showy and more difficult to eradicate than non-native pink sorrel.

Oxalis comiculate is a native plant with tiny yellow flowers and small leaves.  

Deciding what plants to incorporate into your landscape and which ones to discourage can be confusing, especially if one of your objectives is to work in harmony with the environment.  For me, the decision often comes down to which plants offer the most advantages to the home gardener for the least amount of time, effort and resources.  Pink sorrel fulfills those guidelines by being a disease-and-pest-resistant, drought-tolerant plant that doesn’t require irrigation or toxic sprays in order to thrive.  Its small flowers bloom practically year-round and it has lovely foliage to boot.  Even better, I don’t even have to plant it because this low-growing wildflower plants itself! 

Pink sorrel is an escaped exotic but that doesn’t make it a bad plant.  It’s a weed, albeit a pretty one, and while I’m not about to fill my garden with it, a few judiciously selected plants can add a bit of landscape beauty with minimal work.   

Monday, December 3, 2012


Simply Living
December 3, 2012

I was never one of those women who dreamed about getting married.  As a child, I didn’t practice marching down the aisle with Barbie dolls, and during my teens I doubt if I ever picked up, let alone browsed through a copy of Bride magazine. 

In December 1972, when Ralph and I decided to get married, it was no surprise that elaborate wedding plans were not on the table. 

We were living on Cape Cod at the time and having a justice of the peace formalize our union – at that point, we’d already been living together for two years - seemed good enough for us.  In addition to everything else we had in common, my future husband and I shared a similar distaste for ceremonial displays.  The mere thought of engaging in pomp and circumstance made both of us extremely uncomfortable.

A ring was required for the wedding so we went to a little store in Chatham that sold Native American jewelry and purchased a simple silver band for the modest sum of five dollars.  Ralph chose to go commando – no ring on his finger – and I wished I could have too.  I had said no to a white wedding dress, fancy ceremony, tiered cake and other traditional trappings but a ring was one marital accouterment I felt forced to accept, at least temporarily.  After hearing the words, “I now pronounce you man and wife,” I knew the ring could come off.

And it did.

Ralph and I have been married 40 years this month (42 years including the years we lived together) and for most of that time, my ring finger has been bare.  My reasons for not wearing a wedding band are in line with the reasons I chose not to partake in the other traditional matrimonial regalia.  I wasn’t comfortable with it and it seemed unnecessary.

Marriage is about commitment and love.  It embodies the willingness of two people to work together for mutual goals and pleasures, to endure difficulties and to support each other when times are tough.  For the past four decades plus two, my husband and I have done just that.  No band of gold or silver could have bound us together more tightly than have the trials and tribulations of daily life. 

We’ve raised four children during our marriage.  The two of the four who are married have forged their own path down the matrimonial aisle.  Both opted to have informal outdoor wedding parties at their parents’ homes attended by intimate gatherings of friends and family.  A friend performed the ceremony for one of our daughters and our son-in-law’s father presented nuptials for the other.  Although neither daughter wore a traditional gown, both embraced the idea of wedding cakes.  And as far as rings go, on their hands, each daughter proudly wears a wedding band as well as a modest but lovely engagement stone.

I’ve never regretted our long-ago decision to forgo a traditional wedding.  As Ralph and I celebrate yet another anniversary, I don’t need a ring to remind me how much love and attachment I feel for the one special person with whom I’ve chosen to spend my life.  A silver or gold band might represents heartfelt commitment to others but the only thing my hand needs to remind me of our devotion to one another is my husband’s fingers interlaced with mine.